June 11, 2012
The average American consumes about 175 calories per day in sugary soda, at least according to the numbers presented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the recent roll-out of New York City’s anti-obesity campaign. Where do these statistics come from, and how accurate are they? After all, we can measure how much soda is being poured into the system, how many 12-ounce bottles and cans are sold on the open market (so-called “dispersal” data), but no one’s actually measuring the volume going down our collective hatch (“consumption” data). Moreover, if you ask city residents, they’ll tend to say, “Oh no, I don’t drink soda. I’m on a liver and cottage cheese kick.”
This phenomenon of underestimating junk food and overestimating healthy food in self-reported dietary surveys is known as the “Lean Cuisine syndrome.”
William Rathje, a forefather of modern garbology (the academic study of garbage, not a fancy name for street-sweeping), gave the phenomenon its name in his 1992 book Rubbish!. After examining trash bags full of soda cans and liquor bottles, Rathje found that what we claim to have eaten and drunk rarely lines up very closely with the actual stuff stuffed in the trash bag—especially when it comes to soda and liquor.
In other words, we are what we eat, but we tell the truth about it only in what we leave behind. Rathje is not a psychologist and doesn’t spell out exactly why we lie, but perhaps it’s a coping mechanism. After all, it’s tough to own up to another statistic—that a third of our food goes to waste.
June 7, 2012
In 1906, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the father of American horticulture, predicted that America’s next big wild fruit, joining the ranks of strawberries, cranberries and gooseberries, would be the common elderberry, which he wrote was “almost certain to become the parent of a race of domestic fruit-bearing plants.”
Elderberries can be pressed into a magenta wine. The plant is a distant relative of honeysuckle, and its distinctive umbrella of cream-colored flowers makes an aromatic alcoholic cordial. Within the past decade, this elderflower elixir and its sui generis floral flavor has been given some credit for reviving the popularity of liqueurs. The most recognizable version behind the bar is a bottle of St. Germaine. The European elder (Sambucus nigra) gives Sambuca its name, although the modern version of the Italian liqueur tastes more like licorice.
Many alcoholic elder-containing concoctions came about, much like Angostura, as remedies, inspired by elder’s age-old medical claims; the plant was thought to have the ability to ward off colds, for instance. Some of these folk remedies may potentially have some basis. In 2009, researchers found that elderberry extracts in vitro compared favorably with Tamiflu® (a drug that is derived in part from star anise) in blocking the swine flu virus.
Despite its remarkable history, the primary use of elderberry today in the United States has little to do with anything Liberty Hyde Bailey or the early European apothecaries could have foreseen. Its pigments are extracted and made into a food-safe dye. And unless you’re a vegetarian or slaughtering your own meat, you’ve probably benefited from the elderberry. When the USDA inspects meat and its inspectors stamp a label—”U.S. Inspected” or “USDA Prime”—they use a purplish, food-safe dye that comes in part from elderberries.
Photogram of elderberry blossoms by Bertha E. Jaques/Smithsonian American Art Museum
June 4, 2012
Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter of Moby Dick to the substance. The Chinese believed it to be dragon spittle hardened by the sea. Ambergris (that’s French for gray amber) is an opaque, hardened orb that floats for months or years at sea, until its waxy mass washes up ashore. It has have sometimes been described, inaccurately, as sperm whale vomit. Ambergris comes out the other end—the cetacean approximation of a human gallbladders stone, formed in a whale stomach as a protective barrier around sharp, indigestible squid beaks, and then excreted.
Of all the world’s feces, ambergris may be the only one prized as an ingredient in fragrances, cocktails and medicines. It’s eaten, too. Persian sherbets once included ambergris along with water and lemon. Casanova apparently added it to his chocolate mousse as an aphrodisiac. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin recommended a shilling’s worth of ambergris in a tonic of chocolate and sugar, which he claimed would render life more easy, like coffee without the restless sleeplessness.
Christopher Kemp, a molecular biologist who works (by intention, it seems) at a desk “cluttered with marginalia” exhumes these enigmatic tidbits in his new book Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. He includes obscure recipes found in footnotes to the annotated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Regained, in which “grey amber” was melted like butter onto roasted game encased in pastries.
Kemp also cooks with a piece of white ambergris: “It crumbles like truffle. I fold it carefully into the eggs with a fork. Rising and mingling with curls of steam from the eggs, the familiar odor of ambergris begins to fill and clog my throat, a thick and unmistakable smell that I can taste. It inhabits the back of my throat and fills my sinuses. It is aromatic—both woody and floral. The smell reminds me of leaf litter on a forest floor and of the delicate, frilly undersides of mushrooms that grow in damp and shaded places.”
Enigmatic, yes. Legal, no—at least not in the United States, where the mere possession of ambergris is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as is the eating of whale meat itself. The taste remains mostly unknowable, an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the mysteries contained in our oceans at large.
June 1, 2012
Have you heard the one about putting the banana in the paper bag with the unripe avocado? Leave the bag on the counter for a couple of days and the avocado ripens up. Those are fruits communicating. They’re smelling each other.
Fruits that ripen after being picked, called climacteric fruits,* become softer and sweeter thanks to a plant hormone called ethylene. The gas, produced by the fruits themselves and microorganisms on their skin, causes the release of pectinase, hydrolase and amylase. These enzymes ripen fruits and make them more appealing to eat. A plant can detect the volatile gas and convert its signal into a physiological response. Danny Chamovitz writes in What a Plant Knows that a receptor for ethylene has been identified in plants, and it closely resembles receptors in the neural pathway we have for olfaction or smell.
The gas was discovered in 1901 by a 17-year-old Russian scientist named Dimitry Neljubow of the Botanical Institute of St. Petersburg. I like to imagine Neljubow at his window, gazing at trees twisted and abnormally thickened by their proximity to street lights—why did lights do that?
Neljubow appears to have come to his revelation about ethylene through the careful study of germinating pea plants inside his lab. He planted peas in a pair of pitch-black boxes. Into one, he pumped air from the outside; the other he fed air from his laboratory. Those peas fed the laboratory air grew sideways and swelled up. He then isolated ethylene found in the “illuminating gases” burned by lamps in his lab and on the streets at night
In the 1930s, Florida orange growers noticed something similar. When they kept fruits warm with kerosene heaters, the heat itself did not ripen up the oranges, and yet the fruits ripened (and sometimes rotted). The fruits smelled the ethylene in kerosene, much like you or I would get a whiff wafting over from a neighborhood barbecue. And that’s something we know because of a chance discovery hastened by some leaky pipes in Neljubow’s lab.
Photo of peas grown in increasing concentrations of ethylene by J.D. Goeschle/Discoveries in Plant Biology, 1998. Thanks to Robert Krulwich for inspiration on this one.
* Climacteric fruits include apples, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, peaches and tomatoes. Others, such as cherries, grapes, oranges and strawberries, do not ripen after being picked.
May 30, 2012
The average American eats 195 pounds of meat a year. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s laden with meaning—in terms of human evolution, social habits and modern marketing. Men, on average, consume more meat than women. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the man responsible for the best-selling phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” recently published a study establishing a metaphoric link between masculinity and meat.
He and his colleagues tested subjects on a variety of word-association and other tasks and placed different foods along a spectrum of male-linked to female-linked. On the male end of the spectrum were raw beef, steak, hamburger, veal, rabbit, broiled chicken, eggs (hard-boiled followed by scrambled). Milk, fish, sushi, chocolate, chicken salad and peaches were more toward the feminine side. This division loosely lines up with articles in 23 foreign languages using gendered nouns—as in le boeuf (male) or la salade (female)—but curiously phallic-shaped meats like sausages and frankfurters appeared no more linguistically “masculine” than did, say, ground beef or steak.
The study reports some counterintuitive findings. For example, cooking and food processing tend to be associated with femaleness, except when it comes to medium-rare or well-done steaks, which outrank raw beef or blood in terms of manliness. And if you thought placenta and eggs fell under the feminine category, you’d probably be the exception (although, admittedly, the study did not consider the male approximation, such as testicles or milt). Even more perplexing, the undergraduate men surveyed listed orange juice right up there with medium-rare steak and hamburger.
Really, though, what do these food metaphors have to with anything? Well, according to the Rozin and his co-authors, “If marketers or health advocates want to counteract such powerful associations, they need to address the metaphors that shape consumer attitudes.” This lends a certain credence to the practice of slapping artificial grill marks on a sausage-shaped soy patty, an otherwise potentially emasculating cut of protein—and it offers a compelling a lesson for those attempting to make fake or in-vitro “meats” here to stay. Make them manly, boys.
Photo: “Chorizo (Basque Sausage) and Fried Eggs” by Carl Fleishlauer/Library of Congress